Furthering that community involvement, the introductory students are also immersed in planning a group project, which the entire Big Picture group executes together. This year, they’re trying to open a café in South Burlington.
Although Big Picture is self-selective and small by design, Shields said he doesn’t turn many interested students away. “We look at a lot of things,” he said, “grades being an indicator but not the most important indicator. They may have no good grades, but started their own rock band, and they tour.”
After filling out a paper application, potential program participants are invited in to interview. The applicants and their parents are both required to submit essays, in which they explain why they think the program will work for the student. The process culminates in a test of sorts. Applicants are given a choice of two prompts to answer, both of which require the teen to consider how, exactly, they might complete a structured project over the course of the semester.
Sam Caron, 16, said he had trouble staying focused in a traditional classroom. He’s a first-year participant, and this year, his project is the creation of a cider press.
Comparing a traditional high-school schedule with a self-designed Big Picture curriculum is like comparing “apples and oranges,” Caron said. “Here, what I put into it is what I get out of it. It’s just that with this, I want to be putting more into it, because it’s stuff that I’m interested in.”
So how does making a cider press earn the equivalent of an A in, say, chemistry or world history?
To fulfill science proficiency requirements, each participant enters Vermont’s annual state science fair. Their entry has to have an angle related to their independent project, forcing them to think creatively in order to come up with a scientific hypothesis that can be executed and tested.
Caron will be testing and designing a contraption to demonstrate how best to extract the most juice from a single apple for this year’s science fair.
A panel of judges consisting of scientists and science teachers review each experiment according to a rubric. For other students, science fair feedback is just constructive criticism. For the Big Picture kids, it effectively replaces their grades, proving or disproving their science proficiency.
Shields said Caron’s cider press project would fall under the Big Picture “reasoning and problem solving domain.” The 16-year-old will learn through research, gaining hands-on experience while using the scientific method.
Throughout the year, students assesses their own work to measure what they’ve learned and to make sure they’ve identified, mapped out, and realized plans toward achievable goals. They also participate in exercises like weekly “Socratics,” where they read, analyze, and discuss a news article or piece of literature chosen by advisors or peers. Reflection and self-assessment are key.